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Friday, September 22, 2023


Professor provides insight on human trafficking

The Houston Rescue & Restore Coalition held the “3rd Annual Big Dipper Dash” September 7 in Tom Bass Park. The foundation aims to raise awareness about modern-day slavery in Houston | Wanjun Zhang/The Daily Cougar

The Houston Rescue & Restore Coalition held the “3rd Annual Big Dipper Dash” September 7 in Tom Bass Park. The foundation aims to raise awareness about modern-day slavery in Houston | Wanjun Zhang/The Daily Cougar

Reuben Perez, an assistant U.S. district attorney, was on the way to a wedding with his wife when news broke in the “Bar Belles” case. Maximino Mondragon and his co-conspirators were being investigated for servitude, trafficking and alien smuggling by the Department of Justice and several other agencies in a joint task force. The DOJ was on track to file charges within two months.

But the plan changed, and Perez never made it to the wedding.

Mondragon, who operated El Potrero De Chimino Bar and others, had purchased a one-way ticket to El Salvador. When he was arrested on Nov. 13, 2005, he had blueprints in his possession, which were for a new hotel he hoped to open in El Salvador.

According to Perez, 120 women were freed after his arrest.

Mondragon operated through fear and coercion, like most involved in the smuggling and servitude element of human trafficking, said Ed Gallagher, assistant U.S. district attorney.

“It’s a renewable resource; it’s not like drugs. You move the drugs one time, and the drugs are consumed and that’s it. With a human being, you can repeatedly exploit (him or her),” Gallagher said.

Mondragon and his co-conspirators allegedly lured women from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras by promising a legitimate job.

They would arrange for the women to be smuggled and levy a fee ranging between $6,000 to $12,500 and extend the debt by loaning necessities like housing, food, clothing, transportation and money to be sent home to families. The women were compelled through threats to submit to prostitution, according to court documents.

Mondragon was sentenced to 13 years in prison and was ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution, according to court documents. The majority of that money is unlikely to be received because most of what Mondragon and his associates owned were little resellable properties in the U.S., Perez said.

Gallagher, also an adjunct UH professor, who taught a human trafficking course over the summer, said most people involved in the immigration and forced labor industry were part of a family operation.

“The large majority of them are usually mom-and-pop style organizations,” Gallagher said. “It involves a family and a couple of brothers, a father and maybe four or five (others) that are in it to make money. In more rare instances, it is very organized.”

Smuggling is successful because traffickers like Mondragon take advantage of poor job markets in Central America.

“We attract a lot of different people to Houston,” Gallagher said. “There’s a lot of job opportunities, but there’s also a lot of opportunities to exploit, so there’s a direct tie with smuggling.”

Houston and the DOJ have brought together several layers of government to combat trafficking and smuggling.

“We respond locally to a crime, but we have to view it globally,” Gallagher said.

“You cannot work an international trafficking case without Immigrations Customs Enforcements; they have to work hand-in-hand with the FBI. In the labor area, you have to have the Department of Labor to address wage issues,” Gallagher said.

“We want to know where the financials are; are they paying taxes? So we brought in the IRS, and now they are a key member in looking at the financial aspects of these cases, particularly in domestic cases with your local pimp. Since there are so many international connections, the State Department’s diplomatic security is very important to us — passports, visas that are being issued. The Texas Rangers, Department of Public Safety are involved, along with The Texas Alcohol and Beverage commission, since they oversee all the licensing of alcohol in all establishments.”

Gallagher stressed that the vast majority of immigrants who enter the U.S. are not violent and are otherwise law-abiding.

Maria Trijulio, the executive director of Houston Rescue and Restore and a guest lecturer in Gallagher’s human trafficking course, said if given the chance, the victims of trafficking can contribute to society.

“If you can get someone out of slavery, they can in fact become a thriving member of our community,” she said.

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